Avian influenza deaths halve supply of free-range Christmas birds in the UK | Bird flu

A leader in the poultry industry has told MPs that half of the poultry raised on free-range at Christmas in the UK have died or been culled due to the bird flu epidemic.

British Poultry Council chief executive Richard Griffiths told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Tuesday that free-range poultry had been hit “very hard”.

About 600,000 of the 1.2 million to 1.3 million Christmas turkeys and geese raised have already been “directly affected” by the disease. Of the 8.5 million to 9 million turkeys produced each year over the festive period, Griffiths said, about 1.6 million turkeys have already died or been culled.

The highly pathogenic bird flu, which has been plaguing Britain for more than a year and has picked up pace in recent weeks, is deadly to farm animals such as turkeys and geese.

However, Britain’s worst outbreak of bird flu also meant that any birds left on an infested farm had to be culled.

When asked what the devastation in the poultry business would mean for the cost of turkeys in stores, Griffiths said, “I don’t know, and that’s really a question for retailers at this point. We don’t know how the gaps within retail are going to be filled.”

Paul Kelly, of Essex-based Kelly Turkeys, told MPs there would be a “great, massive shortage” of free-range turkeys on the shelves.

However, the farmer said he didn’t expect prices to go up: “I think it’s just going to be a supply problem, not a price hike.”

There have been 136 cases of highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza confirmed in the UK since the start of October, the vast majority in England, although the disease has now reached all countries.

In previous outbreaks, Griffiths said, the number of cases only tended to reach double digits.

Griffiths told the committee that more than a third (36%) of poultry farms have been affected by some form of control designed to limit the spread of bird flu, whether or not they are directly affected by the disease.

Kelly told MPs his company had already faced three outbreaks of the disease, causing a loss of £1.2m.

“For farmers it was devastating,” Kelly said, calling for reform of the compensation scheme.

Farmers are only compensated for the number of intact and healthy animals when the authorities arrive to cull the remaining birds. However, poultry producers have reported entire flocks succumbing to the disease before the cull can begin.

“The challenge for a lot of small seasonal producers who produce Christmas chickens is, they have their flock on their farm, and when you get infected, those turkeys die within four days,” Kelly said.

Poultry producers are calling for faster development of an avian influenza vaccine amid warnings that many infected people are wondering whether to continue raising turkeys.

It comes after Britain’s Free Range Egg Producers Association said this month that shortages and rationing caused by bird flu were expected to continue after Christmas. Tesco and Asda are among the supermarkets rationing eggs.

Leave a Comment